What’s in a word? The debate over defining landscapes

This article was written by a social reporter. It has not been edited by the Forum organisers or partners, and represents the opinion of the individual author only.
Photo: Nanang Sujana/CIFOR
Photo: Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

In the launchpad of the Global Landscapes Forum in Paris, held alongside the UNFCCC COP 21, Seth Shames, Director of the Policy Program of EcoAgriculture Partners, and his colleagues released the Little Sustainable Landscapes book.

This book represents the fruit of collaboration between major organizations—such as Global Canopy Programme, EcoAgriculture Partners, IDH Sustainable Trade Initiative, The Nature Conservancy and WWF—working on landscapes.

“We decided to write this book because we thought there needed to be a clearer definition of what landscapes were,” said Seth Shames. Despite the growing popularity of the term ‘landscapes’, explained Shames, not everyone understands the same thing by it.

Intrigued by this book, I walked around the Palais des Congrès to gain insights from the forum participants. What do they understand by ‘landscapes’? Do they think a standardized definition of landscapes is needed?

On one end, there are practitioners like Lucia Madrid Ramìres, Project director at Consejo Civil Mexicano para la Silvicultura Sostenible, who believes that, as no definition can be perfect, having multiple definitions can be helpful. “I don’t think we need to have one single definition. Some definitions lack of some things, some have more,” said Ramìres.

There are also those who believe, given the variety of landscapes globally, that different definitions are unavoidable as people have different experiences, backgrounds, and local challenges.

“Take for example, an indigenous person from the Amazon, an Indonesian bureaucrat, and a researcher in Canada; landscapes will naturally mean something different to them” says Denis Ruysschaert, a Specialist in Political Ecology with CERTOP Toulouse-Le-Mirail.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those like Shames who believe that one definition is needed to avoid confusions and ensure that we are talking about the same thing. “I think people abuse the word landscape to refer to anything that has to do with land, which is not a useful terminology,” he said.

Finally there are those who believe that, rather than defining what a landscape is, it is crucial is to agree on the aims of landscape management. “You can always spend years and years and years discussing definitions, and it will never be perfect. It is much more important to agree on the state of the landscape we want to reach,” said Andreas Tveteraas, Deputy Director General at the Norwegian International Climate & Forest Initiative. “I am sometimes a bit nervous of spending too much time on definition rather than action,” Tveteraas said.

While the Global Landscapes Forum participants had a wide variety of views on the need for a definition of ‘landscapes’, they all seemed to agree that landscapes refer to a holistic view of managing resources.

What is your opinion? Do we need one, unifying definition of landscapes, or do we only need to define our aims for well-managed landscapes? Can we have one without the other?